The Memo: Democrats go to war over ‘wokeness’

Internal Democratic tensions over cultural change, equity and “wokeness” are boiling over after the party’s dismal showing in this week’s elections.

Progressives and centrists are in a pitched battle over how best to grapple with huge debates that have been roiling the nation in recent years. Those debates touch on some of the rawest topics in American life: race, gender and sexuality, as well as policing, criminal justice and education.

To the centrists, progressives are pushing and prodding the party out of the mainstream of American opinion, risking further electoral calamity. The left, they argue, is too glib, and too prone to confuse self-righteous social media chatter with the more nuanced realities of public opinion.

To the left, the centrists are cravenly abandoning the party’s core supporters and its core purpose. If the Democratic Party isn’t committed to making America fairer, they ask, what is it even there for?  Many progressives also see the centrist approach as a strategic error, arguing that caution and timidity depress enthusiasm among key voting groups.

The Democratic family argument has been sharpened by the victory of GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin over Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. 

Youngkin’s success came in part because he made critical race theory and parental influence on schooling major issues. 

Formal critical race theory — an advanced academic discourse — is not taught in Virginia public schools. But Youngkin made the topic a proxy for broader concerns about curricula that highlight racial differences and focus on the more ignoble elements of American history.

Elsewhere, incumbent New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was run uncomfortably close by Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, who made cultural issues from COVID-19 mandates to LGBTQ rights part of his campaign.

And progressives suffered a major disappointment in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May 2020. There, a ballot measure to replace the city’s police department with a public safety agency was defeated by a 12-point margin.

That was enough for Democratic veterans like Clinton-era strategist James Carville to wade into the anti-wokeness fray.

“What went wrong is just stupid wokeness,” Carville told “PBS NewsHour” host Judy Woodruff on Wednesday. “I mean, this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this ‘Take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools.’ … People see that.”

Carville added that some progressive activists “need to go to a ‘woke’ detox center or something. They’re expressing a language that people just don’t use and there’s backlash and a frustration at that.”

Others in the party make similar arguments, even if not with Carville’s characteristic fierceness.

One Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity lamented to this column that “we’ve had a long run of defining these debates in the worst possible way for us.”

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) struck a similar note. He told The Associated Press that “most people have no problem with teaching history in a balanced way.” But, he added, it is also true that “when you say critical race theory, and you say that it is attacking us and causing our children to feel bad about themselves, that is an appeal that is attractive.”

Those views are met with full force by progressives. 

On Friday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted a rebuttal to Carville, complaining that “pundits like Carville using terms like ‘woke’ to insult voters under 45” was “denigrating.” 

The New York congresswoman added, “Don’t wonder why youth turnout falls when Dems talk about them like this. We need everyone.”

Johnetta Elzie, a prominent racial justice activist, told this column that the optimism which characterized the huge Black Lives Matter protests in mid-2020 has dwindled.

“Everyone was being so hype about the multicultural protests last summer, but all these things that national, state and local politicians ran on — all of that has been walked back,” she said, citing police reforms as well as broader issues like the protection of voting rights.

“Folks are watching the stuff they were fighting for last summer just fade away and not be important to the party.”

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and a former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, said that the Democratic Party had been “moving like dinosaurs when it comes to advancing matters of racial justice,” a sluggishness that she said had left people “frustrated.”

Tré Easton, senior adviser to the progressive Battle Born Collective group, struck back at those who say excessive “wokeness” hurt Democrats in the most recent election.

“I just think that is not tethered to reality,” Easton said. “Progressives aren’t calling the shots in terms of where the Democratic Party is heading. Progressives did not win the 2020 Democratic primary for president. I don’t think Terry McAuliffe would describe himself as progressive or even particularly ‘woke.’ The people making these accusations never have to ‘show their homework.’ There is no evidence or data to support it.”

That assertion is itself debatable, however.

For example, exit polls in Virginia indicated that one huge driver of Youngkin’s win was a shift among independent voters. 

On Tuesday, Youngkin won voters who termed themselves neither Democratic nor Republican by 9 points — a startling reversal from the 2020 presidential election, when President Biden carried independents by 19 points over former President Trump.

That seems to suggest the problem is related to Democrats being seen as too radical rather than not radical enough — especially when self-identified Democratic voters cast 36 percent of all votes in both elections.

Republicans, meanwhile, say that Democrats will play into their hands if they accelerate a leftward march.

“Cultural debates played a huge role in the Virginia race,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. “I don’t think Youngkin gave a speech the entire campaign that didn’t mention critical race theory. But the larger thing was that the election was won in part because of voters who think Democrats have gone too far left and are out of touch culturally.”

Conant argued this pattern was “not just limited to one election. You see it in Virginia but you also see it in the collapse of support for Democrats among blue-collar voters in southern New Jersey. Blue-collar union workers used to be the core of the Democratic Party. Now they are the core of the Republican Party.”

At one level, that process has been going on for a lifetime. 

President Lyndon Johnson predicted grimly but accurately that he had “lost the South for a generation” for his party by backing landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. 

Voters who moved toward the GOP in the 1980s, largely on the basis of their more conservative cultural beliefs, came to be known as “Reagan Democrats.” President George H.W. Bush was helped to victory in 1988 in part by a racist ad, run by an outside group, featuring Willie Horton, a convicted murderer and rapist who is Black.

But the particularly sharp changes that have been felt in recent years around so many cultural issues is clearly having a huge impact on the political landscape.

The Democratic strategist who spoke to this column still held out hope the party could find an electoral sweet spot.

“You can stand for racial progress in education, and for significant and substantial police reform, and still do very well” at the polls, the strategist said. “But you can’t say, ‘I want to defund the police and get parents out of education’ and do very well.”

Right now, Democrats are struggling to thread the needle.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 


Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Critical race theory Donald Trump Education Glenn Youngkin Hank Johnson Joe Biden Phil Murphy Terry McAuliffe transgender rights Virginia

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